Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Motorcycle Madness and a Brief History of Vietnam, Hanoi, 22 February - 7 March 2011

Motorcycle Madness

Hanoi's crazy traffic
The rain was pounding against my visor making it incredibly hard to see the pot holes that litter the highway beneath me. A loud horn blasted in my left ear as a huge lorry slowly overtook me causing me to veer more to the right as the air pressure pushed me. I had no idea why I was on this bike, let alone why I ever thought it would be a good idea to ride it myself. Back at home last year I thought about doing my CBT training and buying a 125cc motorcycle to drive back and forth to work. I never did do this as I couldn't justify the expenditure for just a few months before my departure. I never thought my first time riding a motorbike would be abroad, let alone in the craziness of Hanoi where road laws seem to be non existent, road markings are meaningless and traffic lights are more of a Christmas decoration than traffic control. Motorbikes ride everywhere, if you don't have a motorcycle you are deemed to be unsuccessful or a peasant. However, the craziness surprisingly works, the traffic continues to flow and it seems as though there is more respect for other road users than in the west as they continuously look out for people move to allow them in the traffic. Having said that, its an incestuous rule, bikes look out for bikes, cars look out for cars but they don't look out for each other. There is a pecking order on the roads which need to be obeyed or death will be the result. The order is; Lorries, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians. The pedestrians really have to be careful as they are not looked out for at all because there aren't many. Everybody has a bike and they use it all the time no matter where they are going they are on the back of something. Crossing the road is simple when you learn to trust the bikers, find a starting gap and edge your way across the road at a slow and steady pace making sure that you don't hesitate or speed up at any point. This will get you across the road safely.

The night before Raymond, his friend and I were sitting on the roof of the hotel drinking beer whilst looking out over the rooftops of Hanoi. Raymond asked me whether I would like to hire a motorbike to which I replied positively. I did tell him that I wasn't sure whether I would be able to ride one but he told me that he'd teach me and we would get out of the city where it was quieter. After agreeing to this we thought it would be funny to place a table and chairs outside on the roof for the waiter to find in the morning.

So there I was sitting on a motorbike for the first time. It was a semi-automatic which was good news as I wouldn't have to spend time getting used to riding with a clutch. I put the bike into gear and moved off only travelling a few feet before it stalled. This happened time and time again until the owner of the rental place came out and told me to change bikes as that one was dodgy. Having swapped bikes I tried again, this time I pulled of and into the flow of the traffic. I continued on, scared out of my senses, frantically looking around me and disorientated from all of the horns blowing a cacophony of rhythms. It took me a few minutes to realise that I should stop looking behind me and just concern myself with what is happening in front of me. I slowly got the hang of it and began to enjoy the craziness, knowing that you just need to look out in front and go for it whilst everything else moves around you.

Unfortunately the weather was abysmal, it rained almost non stop for hours whilst we drove around the surrounding countryside and rice fields outside Hanoi. We stopped for some food in a small village just east of the city, it was a local place where school children were eating their dinner. We had an excellent fried rice dish before heading off further. As we were steaming along the highway back towards Hanoi I was having fun, the fear had subsided and the freedom of the road took over as I weaved between cars and opened the throttle up. I had no idea how fast I was going or how much fuel I had left as none of the gauges worked. Suddenly the bike sputtered and I experienced loss of power, I pulled over into the hard shoulder and started her up again. The bike pulled out and began to ride OK again but my confidence had been knocked as I didn't want to be in the fast lane and have it cut out again. I took it slowly and things appeared to be going well for a while but within five minutes the engine cut out again. This time it stopped by a xé máy, a mechanic, where Raymond and I stood for a while procrastinating on whether we should consult the mechanic or not. We chose not to and slowly continued back towards Hanoi.

The bridge, courtesy of someone else
SHIT!!! The bus in front of me slams his breaks on and I find myself struggling to keep control as I swerve, narrowly missing a car coming up beside me with his horn blasting continuously. Luckily I managed to squeeze between the car and the parked bus without any collision and opened the throttle up to get myself clear of the scene. The bike seemed to be acting normal again so I continued to head into Hanoi's suburbs weaving effortlessly through the cars and bikes only slowing down for the bridge crossing the river. The hundreds of motorbikes were crammed into one lane with cars and lorries. It was a moment where slow and steady seemed to be the key but my bike didn't like to go slow so I had to constantly struggle weaving between cars and bikes in the narrow lane. The relief I felt emerging the other unscathed was immense, however, we immediately encountered another issue. Where were we? The problem with cities like Hanoi are that there are very few, if any, landmarks that rise above the rooftops so you can't just head towards it. We pulled over and spoke to a man who very nicely took us towards the centre of the city. He hoped onto his bike and stormed off full throttle into the traffic, I struggled to keep up with them and suddenly my battle for dominance was lost as a bus forced its way between me and the others. I tried to look past the bus to find them but I couldn't spot them. I soon had some space to overtake the bus and took the chance but once I was in front, I couldn't see them. I took the first right and luckily saw Raymond there waiting outside the motorbike rental place.

The whole experience being riding the bike in Hanoi was frightening yet exhilaratingly fun. I was surprised that I managed to survive the day and would most certainly do it again as it is a fantastic way to see areas arranged tours do not take you, although I'm sure my mother wouldn't agree...

A Brief History of Vietnam and its Military History

Vietnam as we now know it, is a very new country made up from the kingdoms of Tonkin (North), Annam (Central) and Cochinchina (South). For its entire existence, the region has been constantly struggling for independence from China, Mongolia, France and latest war with the United States of America. The most recent history is the most important to the make up of Vietnam.

French Indochina

The French Empire were involved in the region for many years prior to their occupation. In the nineteenth century they sent many catholic missionaries to the region to spread Catholicism amongst South East Asia. In 1802, the French helped Nguyen Anh recoup lands lost to the Tay Son which resulted in a unified Vietnam under the rule the Nguyen dynasty. In the 1850s the Emperor of Vietnam became increasingly frustrated with French involvement in the region and believed the growing Catholic community was going to be a political risk. The Emperor began to persecute and expel missionaries. In retribution, Napolean III ordered a full out naval attack on present day Da Nang in 1858 and having won the battle forced the Emperor to accept the French involvement in the region and handed over several regions to the French. Following a series of battles during the later part of the nineteenth century, France gained complete control over the whole of Vietnam in 1887. Cambodia soon after requested to become a protectorate of the French Empire and following the Franco-Siam War Laos became the last country to form French Indochina.

During and After the Second World War

During World War Two the newly formed regime of Vichy France granted Japan's demands for access to the Tonkin region of Indochina. This would allow them better military access to fight against China but was also part of their plan for East Asian domination. On 9 March 1945 Japan took complete control over Indochina until their government's surrender in August of that year.

The period after the Second World War was crucial to the formation of present day South East Asia. After falling victim to the Nazi terror, France needed to reassert themselves in order to regain control over their colonies, including Indochina. During the war the Viet Minh were aided by America to fight against the Japanese and had taken control over the countryside regions in North Vietnam. France were greeted with conflict with the Viet Minh who were against the reassertion of French rule and the Vietnamese Nationalists who wanted an independent country.

First Indochina War

In 1949 the First Indochina War got into full swing with military on both sides fighting for land. The French army were being supported by the United States whereas the Viet Minh were being supported by fellow communists China and the Soviet Union. The fighting continued until 1954's battle of Dien Bien Phu. After the war in June 1954 the Geneva Conference decided to temporarily divide Vietnam along the 17th parallel, Ho Chi Minh's communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam ruled the north and Emporer Bo Dai's Government ruled the southern State of Vietnam with French support. Under the agreement of the ceasefire, democratic elections were to be held and the country would be reunited, with the elected government in charge. This never happened as the south said they did not agree to any elections and they knew Ho Chi Minh would be quite popular amongst the village people and the farmers. Instead of the election to decide the fate of Vietnam's overall governance, the Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem held a referendum in 1955 which ousted the emperor from the throne and put him in charge as president of the Republic of Vietnam. However, the records of this rigged election clearly show that 133% of the registered voters voted in the poll which put an end Bo Dai's reign.

Second Indochina War and the American War

Wreckage from B-52
Fighting never really stopped between the north and south and finally resulted in the Second Indochina War or the Vietnam War. The United States of America were providing artillery and financially support to the Republic of Vietnam in their fight against the Viet Cong (Viet Minh). Despite the immense US support, the south were still struggling against the north which agitated the US and in self-interest joined the war in 1964/5 by sending an influx of troops to stop the spread of evil communism in South East Asia. America became actively involved following the Gulf of Tonkin incident where there navy ships were reportedly attacked but many believe this incident was engineered exaggerated by the US. Over the following years, the US became increasingly under pressure from its citizens who became aware that the war wouldn't be won and were slowly loosing the war, they pulled troops out in 1973. During 1973 the Paris Agreement was drawn up and would hopefully end the war by holding free elections in the south and peaceful reunification. The North Vietnamese disobeyed the agreement and finally seized control of Saigon in 1975 creating the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

During the war with the United States of America and the Republic of Vietnam, an estimated 3 million people lost their lives, 2 million of those were reportedly civilians and another 4 million were left injured and maimed for life. Even babies now in are affected as they are born with deformities due to their parents contamination from Agent Orange.

All of the above is evidenced in Hanoi's Military History Museum in Hanoi where there are endless photographs, some decommissioned aircraft and wreckage from a B52 bomber.

Next time, Temple of Literature, traditional performing arts, Ho Chi Minh

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